Bankruptcy Priority Claims: Priority Debt Payment, Claim Hierarchy

This comprehensive guide on bankruptcy priority claims explains the legal framework, types, and hierarchy of claims, providing essential information for creditors and debtors to navigate the bankruptcy process effectively.


Bankruptcy is a legal process that allows individuals or entities unable to meet their financial obligations to seek relief from some or all of their debts. One of the critical aspects of bankruptcy law is the prioritization of claims, which determines the order in which creditors are paid. This guide provides a comprehensive overview of bankruptcy priority claims, focusing on priority debt payment and claim hierarchy.

Overview of Bankruptcy

Definition and Purpose

Bankruptcy is a legal proceeding involving a person or business that is unable to repay outstanding debts. The process begins with a petition filed by the debtor or on behalf of creditors. All the debtor's assets are measured and evaluated, and the assets may be used to repay a portion of outstanding debt.

Types of Bankruptcy

There are several types of bankruptcy, commonly referred to by their respective chapters in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code:

  • Chapter 7: Liquidation of assets.
  • Chapter 11: Reorganization, typically used by businesses.
  • Chapter 13: Repayment plan for individuals with regular income.

For more information, visit the United States Courts' Bankruptcy Basics.

Priority Claims in Bankruptcy

Definition of Priority Claims

Priority claims are certain types of unsecured claims that are given special status and are paid before other unsecured claims. These claims are outlined in Section 507 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

The legal framework for priority claims is established under 11 U.S.C. § 507. This section of the Bankruptcy Code specifies the order of priority for different types of claims.

Types of Priority Claims

The following are the primary types of priority claims under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code:

  1. Domestic Support Obligations: Includes alimony and child support.
  2. Administrative Expenses: Costs associated with administering the bankruptcy estate.
  3. Involuntary Case Gap Claims: Claims arising in the ordinary course of business after an involuntary bankruptcy petition is filed but before the order for relief.
  4. Wages, Salaries, and Commissions: Up to a certain amount earned within 180 days before the bankruptcy filing.
  5. Employee Benefit Plan Contributions: Unpaid contributions to employee benefit plans.
  6. Grain Farmers and Fishermen Claims: Claims of grain farmers and fishermen against debtors operating storage or processing facilities.
  7. Consumer Deposits: Deposits made by individuals for personal, family, or household use.
  8. Tax Claims: Certain types of tax obligations.
  9. Commitments to Maintain the Capital of an Insured Depository Institution: Claims related to maintaining the capital of a bank or savings association.

For a detailed list, refer to 11 U.S.C. § 507.

Claim Hierarchy

Order of Payment

The order in which claims are paid in bankruptcy is crucial. The hierarchy is as follows:

  1. Secured Claims: Claims backed by collateral.
  2. Priority Unsecured Claims: As outlined in 11 U.S.C. § 507.
  3. General Unsecured Claims: Claims without special priority or collateral.

Secured vs. Unsecured Claims

  • Secured Claims: These are claims secured by a lien on property. If the debtor defaults, the creditor can seize the property.
  • Unsecured Claims: These are claims not backed by collateral. They are further divided into priority and non-priority claims.

Administrative Expenses

Administrative expenses are given high priority because they cover the costs of preserving the estate, including legal fees and trustee fees. These expenses are essential for the orderly administration of the bankruptcy process.

For more information on administrative expenses, see 11 U.S.C. § 503.

Specific Priority Claims

Domestic Support Obligations

Domestic support obligations include alimony, maintenance, and child support. These claims are given the highest priority among unsecured claims to ensure that dependents receive necessary support.

Wages and Salaries

Claims for unpaid wages, salaries, and commissions earned within 180 days before the bankruptcy filing are given priority. The maximum amount is adjusted periodically to reflect changes in the cost of living.

Employee Benefit Plan Contributions

Unpaid contributions to employee benefit plans are also given priority. This ensures that employees receive the benefits they are entitled to, even if the employer goes bankrupt.

Tax Claims

Certain tax claims are given priority status. These include income taxes, property taxes, and employment taxes. The priority status ensures that the government can collect taxes owed by the debtor.

For more information on tax claims, refer to the Internal Revenue Service's Bankruptcy Procedures.

Supreme Court Rulings

The Supreme Court has issued several rulings that clarify the treatment of priority claims in bankruptcy. These rulings provide guidance on how the Bankruptcy Code should be interpreted and applied.

Notable Cases

  • Howard Delivery Service, Inc. v. Zurich American Insurance Co.: This case addressed the priority status of workers' compensation insurance premiums.
  • United States v. Noland: This case dealt with the priority of tax penalties in bankruptcy.

For more information on Supreme Court rulings, visit the Supreme Court's official website.

Practical Considerations

Filing a Proof of Claim

Creditors must file a proof of claim to participate in the distribution of the bankruptcy estate. The proof of claim must include documentation supporting the claim and specify whether the claim is secured, unsecured, or priority.

Trustee's Role

The bankruptcy trustee plays a crucial role in administering the estate, including reviewing claims, objecting to improper claims, and distributing assets according to the priority scheme.

Impact on Debtors

Debtors should be aware of the priority of claims as it affects the dischargeability of debts and the distribution of their assets. Certain priority debts, such as domestic support obligations, are not dischargeable in bankruptcy.


Understanding the priority of claims in bankruptcy is essential for both creditors and debtors. The Bankruptcy Code provides a clear hierarchy for the payment of claims, ensuring that certain types of claims are given priority over others. By following the legal framework and guidelines, the bankruptcy process can be administered fairly and efficiently.

For more detailed information, refer to the following official resources:

This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of bankruptcy priority claims, helping improve access to justice and understanding of the bankruptcy process.

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Von Wooding

Von Wooding

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